The courageous, active aspects of self-compassion

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Compassion is not just cosy, gentle and receptive; it can be fierce and protective. In this sense, it has both masculine and feminine aspects. Like yin and yang, we need both in order to maintain balance.

Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff says that the yin is its comforting, soothing form, where we validate our pain and acknowledge our difficulties. The yang is the more motivating form of self-compassion, where we protect ourselves or provide for others—generating feelings of fierceness and strength.

“Courage and compassion are two sides of the same coin. Compassion without courage is not genuine. You may have a compassionate thought or impulse, but if you don’t do or say anything, it’s not real compassion.” ~ Daisaku Ikeda

Think of the fire-fighters who dive into burning buildings out of compassion for others. It wouldn’t be so compassionate to sit back and watch and think, “Poor them!”

Think of a mother lion with her cubs. One moment she’s tending to them, nursing them and showing them care. Yet if the lives of those cubs are threatened, she’ll stand up and fight. It wouldn’t be so compassionate to feel pity for the hungry attacker.

We can have these same brave, active quality in the way we treat ourselves with compassion. I’m thinking of the times we are really firm with our self-discipline, our motivation.

Saying no to others, sticking to a daily exercise routine or firmly disengaging from our to-do list in order to self-care are other examples. In the moment, we might need strength to break free from our habitual patterns. But actually this is an act of compassion, compassion for our long-term wellbeing.

Imagine a friend caught in a spiral of negative thinking. The more they tell you their story, the more and more they become overwhelmed. Is it kinder to sit back, listen and sympathise at this moment? Or is it kinder to interrupt (lovingly) and suggest they pause, look around, hold your hand, take a breath, or do something else to get them back into the present moment and avoid leaving them stuck in their emotional discomfort?

It would be kinder to our friend to interrupt. We can still validate their pain and soothe their discomfort, while nudging them towards a more mindful way of being with difficulty. We might also need the same strong resolve to interrupt ourselves when we feel stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking or behaving.

Research seems to suggest the same; that increased self-compassion actually increases our resilience. (1)

Sometimes this is called the ‘yang’ of self-compassion, and it’s an area of my personal practice I’m working on.

What about you? Do you feel your self-compassionate qualities lean more towards the yin or the yang?

What now?

If you’re feeling skeptical, or worried that self-compassion might turn you into a wuss, you might like to read the common misgivings about self-compassion.

You might also like to try the reflection exercise Being a friend to myself, and gain some more insight into your habits around self-compassion.

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Content gratefully adapted from the Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher Training Course. Lyndi is a graduate of this course, based on the work of Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. Find out more or register for an MSC course in Brisbane.

(1) Wren et al, 2012

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The three components of self-compassion

1_OxPMWDQ1SXUdGG-EXgDBBQ.pngWhen things go wrong, how do we treat ourselves? What comes to your mind?

—Perhaps some self-criticism, being hard on ourselves?

—Feeling isolated or avoiding others for fear of shame?

—Ignoring our own painful feelings and distracting ourselves with entertainment, food, drink?

If, in recalling and reading this, we find we’re feeling a bit down about ourselves, we could place a hand on our heart or give our arm a reassuring rub. We could tell ourselves it’s okay, we’re all hard on ourselves at times. And we could perhaps encourage ourselves with some self-talk like, “May I be kind to myself in this moment.” Taking a moment to really feel that warmth and reassurance.

Here, we just practised all three components of self-compassion.

Mindfulness

In order to soothe our suffering, we first need to recognise our suffering. So mindfulness means simply being aware of our feelings and how painful they are, without getting carried away in the drama of the storyline.

Common humanity

How many times, when we fail or something goes wrong, do we feel, “This shouldn’t be happening!” Remembering others face the same challenges helps us feel normal. We’re not alone in our suffering. We all make mistakes, all of the time. Can we start to see this as part of the human condition?

Self-kindness

This means actively soothing and comforting ourselves when we experience suffering. Genuinely wishing ourselves to be happy and expressing that in our words or actions. Over time, this rewrites the scripts in our brains that trigger self-judgement, and self-kindness becomes our new default.

“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” ~ Chris Germer

I’m very grateful that I recently experienced this. In a future post, I’ll be sharing a personal story of using self-compassion in the face of unexpected suffering.

Still feeling skeptical? Worried that self-compassion might turn you into a wuss? Coming soon: what the research says about self-compassion as a key factor in building resilience. We’ll also be exploring the courageous, active aspects of self-compassion.

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Content gratefully adapted from the Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher Training Course. Lyndi is a graduate of this course, based on the work of Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. Find out more or register for an MSC course in Brisbane.

 

What is self-compassion?

 

Compassion Cloud Tree

Simply put, self-compassion is treating ourselves in the same way we treat a good friend.

Maintaining a good quality friendship requires us to do a few things… to pay attention to our friend, to be kind to our friend and to see ourselves as equally important.

Would you enjoy the friendship of someone who never called you, was always critical of you and saw themselves as better than you? What about someone who avoided you, was scared of you and felt inferior to you? In either case, very difficult to maintain a genuine friendship.

Now imagine the friend who is always there for you, who always supports you; someone with whom you have a lot in common. Easy to be their friend, right? Not just rewarding and fun, but genuine friendship often brings out the best in both people.

Imagine if we could befriend ourselves in the same way? This is self-compassion, and like having a good friendship with someone else, relating well to ourselves also brings out the best in us.

“By practising self-compassion regularly, we can
turn a harsh inner critic into a supportive inner coach.”

Sometimes, when we need help, having someone on your own side can be incredibly supportive. But what happens when we find that our friends are busy or not available to us? The one person we can count on being there for us 24/7 is ourself.

So cultivating self-compassion, the ability to be on our own side with kindness and understanding, is one of the most important tools we can learn in life, and is a major factor in our wellbeing, confidence and resilience. And when we feel well and happy, we can be more available to be better friends to others, too.

The good news is, our current level of self-compassion is not a done deal. It can be cultivated.

The reflection exercise Being a friend to myself is a great way to gain some insight into our habits around self-compassion.

 

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Content gratefully adapted from the Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher Training Course. Lyndi is a graduate of this course, based on the work of Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. Find out more or register for an MSC course in Brisbane.